Postdoc lanyards

MCB Postdocs Take Center Stage

By Sophia Friesen


Postdocs Showcase organizers
MCB Postdocs Research Showcase Symposium co-organizers Varsha Rajshekar (left) and Helen Cantwell (right) at the poster session. Image credit: Xiaopen Chen

It was March 24, 2022, and the postdocs of MCB were starting something new. The lecture hall was large, but as more and more people filtered in, it started buzzing with the sounds of friendships being strengthened and new connections being made. In attendance were various members of MCB, including staff, graduate students, and faculty — but most predominantly, and notably, postdocs. It was the first-ever MCB postdoc research showcase, and the sense of excitement was palpable.

The postdoctoral experience can be isolating, as most social and scientific interactions are often restricted to a single lab. But, as the first keynote speaker of the showcase, UCSC faculty, and former Dernburg Lab postdoc Needhi Bhalla reminded the audience, changing our academic environment for the better is always possible. After speaking about her lab’s groundbreaking research on cell-cycle checkpoint regulation, Bhalla discussed her experience transitioning to a faculty role and working to improve the climate in her own department by making evidence-based structural changes. 

Postdocs Showcase talk
MCB postdoc Xiao Liu (Heald Lab) gives a flash talk entitled "Effects of neuron size on neural development". Image credit: Julia Deng

The most exciting thing about being in academia,” Bhalla said, “is that we are constantly learning new things — getting unique opportunities to learn new things, solve new problems, and experiment with new solutions.” This problem-solving attitude, she explained, can extend beyond troubleshooting lab work to improving assessment practices, mentoring relationships, and faculty hiring.

As the first postdoc-centric research conference in MCB, the showcase was an experiment — one that increasingly appeared to produce positive results. Postdoc Varsha Rajshekar (Karpen Lab), who spearheaded the showcase along with postdoc Helena Cantwell (Heald Lab), summarized it as “showing the community of MCB how awesome the postdocs of this department are,” whether they presented their research in the form of standard talks, short and snappy “flash talks,” or posters. Throughout the conference, scientific engagement was high. During question-and-answer periods, Cantwell and Rajshekar dashed from raised hand to raised hand as the audience peppered speakers with questions spanning a broad range of scientific viewpoints.

MCB postdocs poster Sima
MCB postdoc Jiao Sima (Dan Lab) presenting her poster "Locus Coeruleus noradrenergic neurons as a mediator for sleep pressure". Image credit: Xiaopen Chen

This diversity of perspective was a major strength of the event. Talk and poster slots were open to any postdoc in MCB, which exposed attendees to the full breadth of science across the department. “Outside of my division,” explained postdoc and poster presenter Esther Jeong Yoon Kim, “I had little idea about who’s doing what and what kind of research is coming out,” but the showcase was a chance to explore the diversity of research by MCB postdocs. Those in attendance also spanned the full range of career stages, from researchers who had joined MCB mere weeks before to those preparing to start their own labs in the near future.

As much as scientific engagement, the research showcase fostered a sense of togetherness. Coffee hours and pizza socials gave postdocs the chance to relax, socialize, and make lasting connections. A common refrain among attendees was the key role that postdoc-centered events can play in strengthening personal and professional relationships. “Even before the pandemic, there was nothing like this happening,” said postdoc Allison Didychuk (Glaunsinger Lab), but work this year by the newly formed Postdoc Affairs Office and by postdocs themselves means things are looking up. 

Postdocs mixer
Postdocs and faculty enjoying a social mixer on the Barker lawn.

“This is part of a bigger effort in the department to build a postdoc community,” said Cantwell. MCB postdocs have more opportunities than ever to connect scientifically and socially, whether through research talks at the MCB Postdoc Lunch Club, monthly hangouts hosted by the MCB Postdoc Social Committee, or virtually through the MCB postdoc Slack or LinkedIn.

All this programming seems to be paying off. “I’ve met more postdocs in the last few months than I have in the past three years,” added another postdoc in attendance at the coffee hour. And the in-person nature of the showcase was a big plus for some attendees. Kim said, “To be in a place, after two years of pandemic, where people are actually talking face to face — that’s just a nice feeling.”

Connection-building didn’t end when the showcase was over. The scientific and social bonds made over those two days — with other postdocs, faculty, and other members of MCB — may persist much longer. Susan Marqusee, a faculty member in the MCB Postdoc Affairs Office (PAO) who helped organize the showcase along with PAO liaison Tanya Sullivan, said in closing remarks, “This will be the first of what will be an annual event that — hard to believe — will get even better in the years to come.” Until then, Marqusee encourages MCB postdocs to make full use of the resources and programming available to them. As a final message to all MCB postdocs, Marqusee said, “You are a part of this community, and we value you, and you should participate in all these things!”




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